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Heineken Cup Final Preview: Leinster v Northampton Saints

Heineken Cup Final Preview: Leinster v Northampton Saints

Having beaten two giants of the European game in Leicester Tigers and Toulouse, Leinster will go in search of their second Heineken Cup title in three years when they meet Northampton Saints on Saturday evening.

HEINEKEN CUP FINAL: Saturday, May 21

LEINSTER v NORTHAMPTON SAINTS, Millennium Stadium, 5pm (live Sky Sports 1/HD1/highlights RTE 2)

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Team News: Leo Cullen leads a Leinster team which is unchanged from the side that defeated Toulouse 32-23 in the recent semi-final at the Aviva Stadium.

Cullen, who lines up alongside Scotland’s Nathan Hines in the second row, is one of six Ireland internationals in a pack which includes Sean O’Brien who has scored four tries to date in this season’s Heineken Cup.

O’Brien is joined in the back row by Kevin McLaughlin and fellow ERC Player of the Year award nominee Jamie Heaslip.

Ireland duo Cian Healy and Mike Ross will scrum down alongside Richardt Strauss in a tried and trusted front row combination

Brian O’Driscoll, who has now scored 30 tries in the Heineken Cup, has proven his fitness and will start at centre after recovering from a knee injury.

Centres O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy are two of the six Ireland internationals selected in the province’s back-line.

The tournament’s top points scorer Jonathan Sexton partners Eoin Reddan at half-back with Luke Fitzgerald, Shane Horgan and Isa Nacewa completing the back-line.

Shane Jennings’ inclusion as a replacement is the only change to the 23-man panel from the semi-final for what will be Leinster’s second Heineken Cup final appearance in three years.

Meanwhile, Northampton Saints’ selected team is unchanged from that which beat Perpignan 23-7 at the semi-final stage in Milton Keynes.

Compared to the Northampton side that lost to Leicester Tigers in the Aviva Premiership semi-final last weekend, Paul Diggin’s inclusion on the left wing instead of Bruce Reihana is the only alteration.

England winger Chris Ashton is fit to start despite needing three stitches following an off-the-ball incident involving Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi. He is also set to undergo knee surgery next week.

Ben Foden completes a dangerous Saints back-three, with Dublin-born centre James Downey, himself a former Leinster player, and Ireland-capped ex-Ulster number 8 Roger Wilson also included in the starting line-up.

England flanker Tom Wood is the only frontline player not at Jim Mallinder’s disposal – he misses out with a hairline fracture to his leg.

Calum Clark joins Phil Dowson and Wilson in the back row, with Soane Tonga’uiha, captain Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati featuring in an all-international front row combination.

LEINSTER: Isa Nacewa; Shane Horgan, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen (capt), Nathan Hines, Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: Jason Harris-Wright, Heinke van der Merwe, Stan Wright, Devin Toner, Shane Jennings, Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden.

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: Ben Foden; Chris Ashton, Jon Clarke, James Downey, Paul Diggin; Stephen Myler, Lee Dickson; Soane Tonga’uiha, Dylan Hartley (capt), Brian Mujati, Courtney Lawes, Christian Day, Calum Clark, Phil Dowson, Roger Wilson.

Replacements: Brett Sharman, Alex Waller, Tom Mercey, Mark Sorenson, Mark Easter, Stuart Commins, Shane Geraghty, Joe Ansbro.

Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: Jerome Garces, Pascal Gauzere (both France)
Television Match Official: Giulio de Santis (Italy)

Match Odds (Paddy Power): Leinster to win: 2/5; Draw: 20/1; Northampton Saints to win: 21/10

Pre-Match Quotes: Sean O’Brien (Leinster) – “We have had a brilliant season so far and we are exactly where we want to be – in the finals of both the Heineken Cup and the Magners League. But we have nothing won yet and we still have it all to do.

“There is a lot of excitement about the place thinking about what we could possibly do. But if we don’t win something, we will just be the same as everyone else – taking early holidays.

“We know what we have to do. We have to go out and win a trophy, it is as simple as that.

“I was only involved in the 2009 final (against Leicester) as a replacement, and I never came off the bench. So this Heineken Cup final will certainly be the biggest game of my career with Leinster.

“It is an absolutely massive day for the players, the province and our phenomenal fans. We know we simply have to perform for them as well.

“We had massive physical contests against Leicester and Toulouse, and we did what we had to do. But Northampton will be a different kettle of fish with different challenges. They are playing good rugby.

“Way back when the pools were drawn up, you knew Saints would almost certainly be there or thereabouts at this stage of the tournament. They have quality throughout their whole side, and we face another hugely physical task.”

James Downey (Northampton Saints) – “Sometimes I have to pinch myself. Especially when I went to Italy (to play for Calvisano), I certainly would not have thought I would be in this position now.

“I was released and didn’t have a job for a month, I was thinking about giving up on it. I have come full circle, from being unemployed to being in a Heineken Cup final.

“Things happen for a reason. Dave Quinlan got injured here (at Northampton) and a door opened for me, and it has worked out for both of us. Hopefully I can repay Northampton on Saturday.

“There is no doubting Brian O’Driscoll’s ability, he is simply outstanding. His quality was ridiculous in training (when I was with Leinster).

“He has superb skills, superb hands, he is the modern centre and has been the best centre in the world for the last few years.

“His partnership with Gordon (D’Arcy) is the best centre partnership in Europe and I look forward to going up against it. Gordon and Brian are the benchmark for centres at Six Nations level and Heineken Cup level.

“It’s kind of surreal. If you’d told me when I was in Cardiff that I’d play in a Heineken Cup final…it’s amazing.

“I’d like to think the Saints fans have taken me to their hearts. Northampton is a rugby town, so they’re knowledgeable and passionate. I think they appreciate the fact that I get on with it.”

Current Form – Leinster – (Magners League): Won 34-26 at home to Ulster; Won 20-8 away to Aironi Rugby; (Heineken Cup semi-final): Won 32-23 at home to Toulouse; (Magners League): Won 38-3 at home to Glasgow Warriors; (Magners League semi-final): Won 18-3 at home to Ulster

Northampton Saints – (Aviva Premiership): Lost 27-15 away to Gloucester; Won 26-20 away to London Irish; (Heineken Cup semi-final): Won 23-7 at home to Perpignan; (Aviva Premiership): Won 31-24 at home to Leeds Carnegie; (Aviva Premiership semi-final): Lost 11-3 away to Leicester Tigers

Top Scorers – 2010/11 Heineken Cup: Leinster – Points: Jonathan Sexton 110; Tries: Sean O’Brien 4; Northampton Saints – Points: Stephen Myler 94; Tries: Paul Diggin 6

Previous European Meetings: 2

Friday, October 27, 2000 – Pool 1 – Leinster 40 Northampton Saints 31, Donnybrook
Saturday, October 21, 2000 – Pool 1 – Northampton Saints 8 Leinster 14, Franklin’s Gardens

Heineken Cup Records:

Leinster –
2009/10: Reached the semi-finals
2008/09: Champions
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2006/07: Reached the quarter-finals
2005/06: Reached the semi-finals
2004/05: Reached the quarter-finals
2003/04: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2002/03: Reached the semi-finals
2001/02: Reached the quarter-finals
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
1998/99: Failed to qualify from Pool A
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool A
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool B
1995/96: Reached the semi-finals

Northampton Saints –
2009/10: Reached the quarter-finals
2006/07: Reached the semi-finals
2004/05: Reached the quarter-finals
2003/04: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2002/03: Reached the quarter-finals
2001/02: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
1999/00: Champions